[Viewpoint] Korea needs strong newspapers

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[Viewpoint] Korea needs strong newspapers

Media scholars usually say the public is best served when newspaper circulation stands on a pyramid structure.

A select number of national dailies make up the top tip, a greater number of regional papers hold the middle ground and a multitude of smaller local publications settle at the bottom. The three largely focus on their realms, but when necessary, collaborate to shape public opinion.

Our newspaper industry has been faithful to this model. According to the Korea Press Foundation, as of this year there are 12 Seoul-based national newspaper publishers, 104 weekday papers active in other cities and counties, and 445 weekend and smaller local papers printed across the nation.

On its face, the newspaper industry is in perfect order.

But the local print media, as in other parts of the world, is in critical condition.

Of the 12 national papers, fewer than a third manage to squeeze out a profit or otherwise eke out a living.

The remainder are hopelessly cash-strapped and debt-ridden. If the larger papers are in such bad shape, it is needless to explain the kind of mess the underdogs are in.

They live from day to day, staring at the abyss.

With operations of newspapers in such a mess, those on the payroll inevitably suffer.

Until late 1980s, jobs in the newsrooms of some publishers were staffed with highfliers. But that has become a thing of the past.

Most news writers for Seoul-based publishers are in the lower income bracket.

Staff reporters at smaller publishers naturally are worse off. Many of them are often voluntary workers without a decent monthly salary.

Why has the newspaper industry fallen into such financial distress?

It has become the victim of a free market and advances in technology. The printed press has been forced to share a limited advertising market with burgeoning new media, such as the Internet and cable TV.

Although new types of media sprouted rapidly, the advertising market remained more or less fixed, with advertisers simply migrating to more effective media platforms. At the end of the day, the less ad-effective print media, particularly the smaller capital-based and local newspapers, were left in the cold and deprived of ad revenue.

Will the new media law sought by the government allowing cross-ownership of newspaper and broadcasting operations change matters?

For sure, major publishers may benefit from running a news or general broadcasting channel. But the underdogs will be pushed into further financial trouble. If they lose what is left on their plates, they might as well close.

So should the weak become extinct, leaving only the stronger to survive, following the law of the jungle?

No.

More than any other media, print journalism abides by a stringent gate-keeping process to provide readers with the most accurate and unbiased news.

A reporter’s work is scrutinized by a number of editors, discussed in an editorial meeting, chosen and edited for publication. Features and investigative reports supplement straight news when necessary.

Through such a process of verification and augmentation, newspapers can offer the most reliable and abundant information. The more competition there is, the more the public benefits. To maintain a healthy society, print media must retain a solid pyramid structure.

Cross-ownership in the print and broadcasting industry seems inevitable. Fences and barriers in the digital technology age are obsolete. But the government must help smaller dailies if it plans to lift the ban on cross-operation in the media.

It should study and fix print media regulations to ease printing and distribution costs through bundling. It also could encourage voluntary mergers.

Minor newspapers should also be allowed to join the consortium vying for general broadcasting or news channels.

It must look abroad for models where governments have tried to assist the ailing newspaper industry.

It must not resort to “the survival of the fittest” theory as the easy way out.


*The writer is media studies professor at Korea University.
Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Kim Min-hwan
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